What is Wayfinding?
Wayfinding can be described as the process of using spatial and environmental information to find our way in the built environment. Wayfinding can also be defined from the standpoint of the designer & client seeking to establish or improve the function of a particular environment: Wayfinding design is the process of organizing spatial and environmental information to help users find their way. Wayfinding should not be considered a separate or different activity from traditional "signage design", but rather a broader, more inclusive way of assessing all the environmental issues which affect our ability to find our way. Many of the new "wayfinding" principles have been practiced by designers for years, but have now been named, quantified, and wrapped into a more comprehensive methodology of the design process.
It should be noted that, although signage has been the most common solution to wayfinding problems, the new, broader view offered by a wayfinding design approach always yields a higher quality communications answer, because it often identifies the real sources of confusion in the subject environment, which might be operational, organizational, nomenclature, staff direction-giving, or the building itself.
Research at the beginning of this century by cognitive and behavioral psychologists helped to define such issues as memory, cognitive mapping, spatial recognition, and information processing, and began to shed light on how we use our senses to interpret the physical world, form a plan of action, and execute that plan to navigate to a desired destination.
Language of Space
Most designers, architects, and researchers recognize the work of Kevin Lynch in his book "Image of the City" (1960) as being pivotal in professional thinking about how we understand environments. He coined the term "way-finding" which we use today as well as terms describing spatial features. Lynch contended that all urban space could be described in terms of paths, edges, nodes, landmarks, and districts. It was this "language of space" which enabled later researchers to communicate with test subjects about what they saw, remembered, and used when they tried to find their way. It has become part of the vocabulary of planners, archtects, graphic designers, and clients.
In the 1970's researchers begain to study how we navigate complex spaces by staging tests of orientation and memory in large building complexes, building interiors and malls. These studies revealed that there were many different levels of ability in "wayfinding" and that the process was influenced by many environmental factors, such as building symmetry, user expectation, language, information from signs, other people, and old memories of being in the environment.
By the 1980's the work of Romedi Passini was recognized by the environmental graphics profession as being seminal in explaining many of the issues which graphic designers had been dealing with for many years. His research findings as published in "Wayfinding in Architecture" (1984) and a book by Passini and Paul Arthur called "Wayfinding - People, Signs, and Architecture" (1992) gave designers the structure for describing what the design of wayfinding systems entailed. (This book has recently been reprinted and can be found at www.paularthur-wayfinding.com ). In some cases the new work ratified the intuition of designers about good wayfinding design; in other cases it corrected faulty notions. Best of all, it has given designers and clients a common language by which to discuss wayfinding needs and solutions. Although many researchers have published works devoted to the topic, these are considered the most readable and applicable to design problems.
How It Applies to Design
Out of all this rather esoteric research and writing have come some general principles which can be used by designers and clients on design projects. As stated here, they can apply to many different building types, but specific differences exist for special types such as hospitals, airports, retails malls, etc.
1. Wayfinding in buildings and groups of buildings is most affected by the logic of the architectural arrangement and design. The apparent logic of how a group of buildings or spaces is arranged affects the user's ability to understand and remember where he is in the environment. Visual dominance of entrances, definition of public space from private space, the ability to visually separate one functional zone from another, all play an important role in being able to navigate the space.
2. The naming, numbering and general organization of the parts of a building is a critical, organizational aspect of a wayfinding plan. Floor numbering, dedicatory names vs common names, departmental names, stall numbering, and room numbering must be carefully considered when preparing message lists for use on signs and when publishing brochures. Clear, logical hierarchies must exist to help users remember and use the nomenclature. Symbols, identity, and foreign language also play an important role.
3. People using the environment bring with them unique abilities, limitations, and memories about navigating which must be accommodated by any overall wayfinding strategy. The number of repeat visitors, sight and mobility limitations, emotional state of the user, and whether the facility is entirely new or a revision to an early facility all must be taken into account when developing a wayfinding plan. Special needs populations, cultural and ethnic minorities, ESL groups, and the elderly all must be able to use the facility with a mininum of assistance.
4. All public information such as brochures, mailers, news ads, radio/TV ads and even informal hand-outs become part of the user's information on how to use the environment. All forms of public information must be consistent in their representations about the faciltity in order for communication to be clear; published maps must agree with facility maps, driving instructions must agree with how the facility is actually accessed, and type size & contrast must all be legible.
5. Direction-giving by staff and other occupants of the building are an essential part of the user's environmental influences and must be organized and trained wherever possible. An explanation of how the signs and other wayfinding devices are intended to work can help staff give clearer, more helpful directions. Training sessions which teach proper nomenclature, how to assess the special needs of the user, and practice sessions on direction-giving all contribute to a comprehensive wayfinding plan.
6. A clear, organized set of sign elements can be the most cost-effective solution to wayfinding improvements in an existing building. However, only when the other issues above are well-understood can such conventional devices as signs and directories be employed as part of the solution. Related graphic devices such as wall and floor graphics, strategic placement of sculpture, art programs, and computerized information kiosks are all potential elements in a successful wayfinding plan.
For more information, please contact me at kbd@olympus.net.